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Pipelines, utilities guard against coronavirus but keep gas flowing

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Pipelines, utilities guard against coronavirus but keep gas flowing

North American natural gas transportation and distribution companies are taking measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and limit their employees' exposure to the coronavirus that causes the disease, but companies said they do not expect it to affect the operation of their pipelines and utilities.

"There have been no impacts to our operations," Enbridge Inc. spokesperson Michael Barnes said in a March 16 email. "Early on, Enbridge took proactive steps to deal with COVID-19. We have enacted our robust continuity plans that cover a number of situations. The resilience, planning and preparation of many people across our organization means we can manage through this health crisis."

The gas pipeline trade group, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, said its members put a priority on safety. "Pipelines have business continuity plans in place that address a wide range of emergency scenarios and ensure core operations and business functions," INGAA interim President and CEO Alex Oehler said in a statement.

"To respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, INGAA members are actively coordinating with government agencies, including the Department of Transportation, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Energy, as well as the private-sector segments of the natural gas value chain," said Oehler, who is also the head of TC Energy Corp.'s U.S. government relations team. "This coordination will help ensure safe and reliable natural gas delivery throughout this public health emergency."

The COVID-19 pandemic has spread throughout the world with serious health and economic effects. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the total number of diagnosed cases in the U.S. was 4,226 on March 17, and total deaths were at 75. The health agency's website called it a "rapidly evolving situation."

Enbridge said in a statement that it is protecting employees by strictly limiting business travel and enacting a work-from-home plan across the gas pipeline company. Enbridge, Energy Transfer LP and other pipelines said they are at a heightened level of emergency response preparedness but should still be able to maintain pipeline flows as usual.

"[Kinder Morgan Inc.] remains open for business — we are not reducing, limiting or shutting down any of our operations," the company said in a statement delivered by spokesperson Melissa Ruiz. "However, in response to guidance from local public health authorities, we have asked office employees and contractors to telecommute for the week of March 16, with plans to re-evaluate on a week-by-week basis. We are also restricting travel to only required domestic, business-essential travel, requesting employees cancel travel around conferences, training and non-essential customer and vendor meetings. International travel is also prohibited unless there is approval from a president."

Kinder Morgan will continue to monitor communications from the CDC and from the United Nations' World Health Organization to determine if additional response measures are appropriate.

"As the pandemic progresses, we may need to change the business continuity response due to this unusual situation," Kinder Morgan said. "We remain committed to our goal of delivering safe, reliable energy services to our customers, communities and stakeholders and will continue to take all appropriate measures to avoid the spread of the coronavirus or other illnesses."

Magellan Midstream Partners LP spokesperson Bruce Heine wrote in an email that the oil pipeline operator has "implemented a number of measures" to keep staff safe.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was not able to respond by press time to queries about its oversight of the pipeline industry during this time and what it expects for impacts. Similar to the pipeline companies' efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak, FERC canceled its monthly public meeting that was on the calendar for March 19, closed its headquarters in Washington, D.C., and asked its staff to work from home.

Gas utilities are also taking precautions. Chesapeake Utilities Corp., as an example, noted in a March 16 statement that it is suspending all "walk-in traffic ... until the COVID-19 risk has subsided."

"Natural gas utilities are increasingly vigilant in monitoring the effects of the COVID-19 virus to maintain operational capabilities across their service territories. We plan, prepare and drill for extenuating circumstances," American Gas Association President and CEO Karen Harbert said in a statement.

Harbert added that the trade organization is working with the Department of Homeland Security, the DOE and other federal agencies "on information dissemination and emergency preparedness."